Social media used to stir up Dalian protest action | Connect Asia

Social media used to stir up Dalian protest action

Social media used to stir up Dalian protest action

Updated 18 January 2012, 15:45 AEDT

Chinese local officials have ordered a petrochemical plant in the northeastern port city of Dalian to be closed after a mass protest was held on Sunday.

The protest shows the ever increasing use of social media and the Internet to spread news quickly, with thousands of people invited to join the protest through various social media sites.

Presenter: Liam Cochrane

Speaker: Professor Stephanie Hemelryk-Donald, dean of the school of media and communication at RMIT University, Melbourne

HEMELRYK-DONALD: Well it was very important for getting the news of the protests out beyond Dalian I think is the main point. It was also important internally to organise the students and the middle classes and the party members and the various extremely well placed and important people to China's government who've taken part, and I think that's the key issue that this wasn't a London riot with people who were looking for profile. These are people who have profile on the economic state already, so they've got access to things like Weibo, which is one of the key microblogs, and they've also got the education and the wit to use things like 'grass mud horse language', which is a kind of a joke discourse where you can say things and everyone knows exactly what you mean but you're not quite saying it as clearly as you might. So very, very important internally at first, even more important to get the message out to the rest of China that something was happening. Weibo was actually shut down, or not the whole service but references to Dalian were shut down by midday on Sunday, on the 14th (August). So it didn't take long for censors to catch up. But by that time the news was out, so it's very, very important indeed.

COCHRANE: When the official censorship curtain does come down are there other social media or innovative technological kind of devices that people are using to get around those big blogs?

HEMELRYK-DONALD: Well yes or no, if a particular set of words or it can be about Ai Weiwei or whatever it's about have been blocked then that is a very effective system and it does go throughout media systems very quickly indeed. But there is of course a kind of knock on effect. So for instance print media might have picked something up and published it and they did, they published, the Dalian Evening News published, and that's a common or garden print media, pictured, published that the plant was going to be taken away from Dalian. But then that image was republished and that story was removed from the front page for any following editions and also from any web based search on that edition. So somebody's seen that already so the government's always in catch-up mode or the censors are always in catch-up mode. So I think it's not so much that things can't be shut down, because pretty much everything can be shut down in some way, but people are moving very fast across different platforms. And also once the people in Dalian knew what was going on, then there's that old-fashioned thing called word of mouth, which happens as well. Phone calls, voice texting and voice messaging is often not closed down, it's not as easy to do it, but it's not as easy to search voices as it is to search text.

COCHRANE: So in a way it's a combination of different levels of sophistication in the media, as well as different techniques and as you say, some good old-fashioned word of mouth that enables these things to really gather steam.

HEMELRYK-DONALD: Yep, that's exactly right.

COCHRANE: Now that the Chinese authorities have caught up on this particular issue and have censored some things and are on the look-out, do you think that there will be tighter media control around this issue and around this location?

HEMELRYK-DONALD: Well yes I think certain words will now enter the lexicon of words that have to be checked very carefully before they're used. I think words beginning with "f", which is an English word that I'm probably not allowed to say, but that was used quite a lot in relation to the Fuija plant. And there will be words around "px", Fuija, get out of Dalian, those kinds of combinations of characters will probably be on the search list now, just as the kinds of conversations that were going on around Chengdu post the earthquake and post the tofu houses that Ai Weiwei made famous and the schools, particularly the schools that collapsed because of bad building practices and corruption during the earthquake. Those kinds of word searches will now be in the lexicon of what people will be looking for or what the censors and the vast numbers of people who are involved in that process will be looking for, and what the spider and search engines will be looking for. So yes that will happen. And I think the other thing to just take into account is it won't be the word so much that is concerning, it's the fact that this is a little middle class revolution that just happened around an environmental issue. And that's what will reoccur. So it's really watching the environmental issues as they roll out across China again and again, this is not the first time, this has happened in Guangdong, it's happened in Xiamen, it will happen again, and it's really the character and status of the people that get out onto the streets that's going to determine the response.

COCHRANE:: We've mentioned some of the different software applications, social media sites that are used in this. But I'm presuming that the mobile phone is a key element of this, people aren't necessarily sitting at their home computers typing this in, but are gathering this information and text messages on their phones. Does that allow the protest movement to be spread throughout different levels of society if you like?

HEMELRYK-DONALD: Well I think you have to be careful on that one because networks are networks so people will only network on their phones or anything else with the people that they are networking with, which is often bound by class or by some form of social grouping. So not necessarily, Weibo likewise and any kind of social networking system that you're on, you network with the people that you network with. The places where you might find yourself meeting up with groups of people that you might not normally be associated with, might be if you share interests in a fan site or share interest in a particular kind of more neutral site, cultural site or whatever it is where you all go, and if something explodes there then more people would be brought into it. Just for an example I was in China recently and I watched as a very smart person, well-informed person discovered that there were riots in Guangzhou and she was very interested in this. But then when we went to look it was actually the riots that were reported much earlier this year, I mean they were several months ago and it had only just sort of turned up on her particular Weibo, the pictures. So she was four months behind and we already knew about it from Australia because we're on a different network so we get things differently, more quickly or different things. There are things that she might know that I still don't know. So I don't think you can underestimate the good old-fashioned networking fact of life, which is you talk to who you talk to.


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